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By Tom Murphy
As members of the Lost Angel Stone Ensemble, Boulderites Tom Wasinger and Jesse Manno play with rocks--literally. With the exception of melodic fragments produced on a small jade ocarina, their music is performed entirely on resonating stones.
"There's not anybody who makes instruments out of rocks anywhere in the world--at least not manufacturing them," Wasinger explains. "I basically had to create the whole premise myself. However, we used techniques that are common to numerous different cultures in putting these instruments together. Some are based on Indonesian Gamelon instruments. But in Indonesia they use bronze bars, while our resonating material is stone."
Wasinger conceived the group four years ago. A guitar teacher, producer and writer of scores for industrial films and videos, he soon began building his instruments with the help of a few craftsmen friends skilled in the use of power tools. Next, he hooked up with Mark McCoin, a former Bruce Odland Big Band member, as well as a hero on the local art and music scene. "Mark was the one who started the Denver Gamelon Orchestra," Wasinger notes. "He had just left the Orchestra, and I thought it might really be helpful to collaborate with someone who had some experience playing Gamelon."
After two years with the Stone Ensemble, McCoin decided to focus on other musical pursuits. Enter Manno, a drummer and percussionist who makes his living by composing commissioned works for dance-theater and performance-art organizations. "After Mark left, Tom still wanted to do it," Manno says. "After all, he'd put so much time and energy into making the instruments. So he called me up because he remembered I was a drummer and percussionist with an interest in world music. That's where a lot of the inspiration for the Stone Ensemble comes from.
"Something I've been able to develop from my improvisational work with dancers," Manno continues, "is this ability to be in any given situation and sort of find out what type of music needs to happen there. So I just started playing [on Wasinger's instruments]. It wasn't like I took some sort of rhythm that I knew and tried to play it on the stones. I listened to what they wanted played on them. That's when I knew that I wanted to start working with them."
The Ensemble's instruments represent an odd mix. They include slit, or tongue, drums made of slate, as well as long, slate resonating bars that hang vertically from jute straps tied to a wooden frame. Wasinger and Manno also play Indonesian instruments built from basanite, a mineral mined in northern California and southern Oregon that must be cut with diamond tools, and andesite stones that produce a quick, plinking sound when scraped, tapped or rubbed. In addition to mallets and a horsehair bow he and Wasinger use to create sounds, Manno wears a shoe with a chunk of red sandstone epoxied to its sole. Thus he is able to produce additional percussive beats simply by stamping his foot on floors or rock surfaces.
The result is unbelievably surreal and beautiful. While the Ensemble's instruments have limitations--they are tuned to a single key that cannot be changed--the players minimize them by using a special scale Wasinger created. The compositions co-written by Wasinger and McCoin are lofty, experimental and cerebral, while the Wasinger-Manno songs are delightfully bent, pulsing celebrations that ring like calliope music from a primitive, otherworldly dimension.
The stones themselves are surprisingly fragile. During a spirited rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" (one of the few tunes not written for the Ensemble that the group can play recognizably), Manno broke a slate drum head. After seeing how long it took Wasinger to repair and tune this instrument, Manno says he no longer regards the stones as indestructible.
Still, the duo has been able to take its instruments and its show on the road. In 1992, for example, Wasinger and McCoin made quite a splash at Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival. "Oddly enough, we're better known in Seattle than we are here," Wasinger says. "I was amazed at the response we got. As long as a year later, I was getting mailed requests for our tape." (The self-titled recording is available from Myth Informed Records, P.O. Box 727, Boulder 80306.)
By contrast, the Ensemble's last Denver appearance attracted an audience of twelve people. The bandmembers have not yet scheduled their next performance, but when they do, it's likely that good seats will be available.